Posts tagged ‘Nonfiction Monday’

The Secret Project

Secret Project.jpgTitle: The Secret Project
Author: Jonah Winter
Illustrator: Jeanette Winter
ISBN: 9781481469135
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2017.

Night and day, the greatest scientists in the world conduct experiments and research in the laboratory. They are working on something they call the “Gadget.” What they are trying to invent is so secret, they cannot even call it by its real name. (unpaged)

Jonah Winter and Jeanette Winter attempt an ambitious undertaking in trying to condense the creation of the atom bomb to a level that the picture book crowd can understand. This is definitely not an easy subject to place into context, but they try. They compare the busy, secretive work to the outside world, where life continues, where “artists are painting beautiful paintings” and there are “peaceful desert mountains and mesas, cacti, coyotes, prairie dogs”. The basics of the science are there, that the scientists are “trying to figure out how to take the tiniest particle in the world, the atom, and cut it in half, making it even tinier” before other scientists are able to do the same thing. Atom is not further described, and a passing mention of metals plutonium and uranium are described as things “that can be turned into something with enormous power” with no elaboration. The scientists are portrayed as single shaded shadows, emphasizing their anonymity during that time frame.

I have a hard time determining who to recommend this to or what audience this would best serve, as it will likely raise questions that will have to be answered by an adult. The book is dedicated “for the peacemakers”, which makes me think it was created for parents who are intentionally broaching the topic with their children, maybe because of a new awareness brought about by today’s politics or media. The author’s note elaborates on the creation and aftermath of the first nuclear test. I feel it was probably a conscious decision to refrain from using the word “bomb” or “explosion” instead referring to it as invention or “Gadget”. The wordless spreads at the end are used to convey the powerful nature of what they’ve created, with a four page ever expanding angry red mushroom cloud culminating in a double page spread of finite black.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.


How to Be an Elephant

How to Be an Elephant.jpgTitle: How to Be an Elephant: Growing up in the African Wild
Author/Illustrator: Katherine Roy
ISBN: 9781626721784
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: David Macaulay Studio, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press, a divising of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2017.

“With flapping ears and whiffling trunks, the herd quickly spreads the new. After 22 months of growing,  a new baby is on her way. From walking and rumbling to drinking and dining, nothing will come easy for this giant-to-be. But like her mother before her, she’ll have to learn…”

Katherine Roy’s watercolors portraying the life of an elephant start at the very beginning, showcasing an elephant calf still in utero on the title page in purple and gray hues. The baby springs onto the scene and is greeted by a half dozen trunks, emphasizing the community and emphasis on family that a herd maintains. The thick brush strokes transition to lighter golds portraying the sand-swept savanna. The diagrams included are informative and supplement the text, providing information on the elephant’s development, habits, and survival methods. Bite sized facts allow for easy digestion by readers who aren’t distracted by the fully engaging pictures.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.


Rise.jpgTitle: Rise: How a House Built a Family
Author: Cara Brookins
ISBN: 9781250095664
Pages: 310 pages
Publisher/Date: St. Martin’s Press, c2017

Pouring the house’s footing had been a wake-up call. Not only was the project a million times more difficult than I had imagined, but it was a mere metaphor for what I really needed to do. I had fooled myself into believing that building a physical house was the same as rebuilding our family. While we might still use the physical build to accomplish the personal one, they were two distinctly different creatures and required individual diets. I felt enormously out of my league in both cases, like I’d adopted a Saint Bernard and an elephant. (92-93)

Cara Brookins and her four children suffered from her marriages, first to a man suffering from delusions and schizophrenia and then to an abuser. Both were scary in their own right, leaving everyone in the family, including the dog, jumping at shadows, looking behind their shoulders, and checking the locks on their doors. Intent on making new memories and helping her kids and herself, Cara pursues a piece of land, a construction loan, and a nine month timeline to build a new house, and hopefully a new home for her family. With no experience, knowledge, or free-time due to school, work, and chores, even they realize the impossible task they have created for themselves.

Even though I laughed over the image of the kids and me as a construction team, I liked the idea a lot. Sure, it was a little nuts, but it was the first workable plan I’d come up with that fit our limited finances. We could do it. I knew we could. Building a house would prove we were strong. It would prove that despite my stupidity in staying with idiots for so long, I was still intelligent. It would prove so many things–most of all that we were alive. (22)

Several of the reviews mention that Cara embarked on this effort due to financial necessity, but if that was mentioned I didn’t catch it. Instead, she stresses repeatedly the need for a safe harbor, a place where ghosts wouldn’t plague their fragile state of mind. In alternating chapters, she jumps from flashbacks focusing on two of her unsuccessful marriages (briefly touching upon her first marriage to an unnamed high school sweetheart) to an accounting of the nine months it took to raise the house from nothing. The flashbacks are graphically detailed, and the fear the whole family felt is palpable when they are chased in a car by the schizophrenic ex-husband and their dog is abused when left alone at the house. It’s psychological warfare, whereas the third husband is physically abusive towards Cara.

The actual build is composed of delays, setbacks, and uncertainties. Things get slightly repetitive, and the addition of pictures and diagrams might have aided in the explanation of how the walls were raise, the pipes were laid, or the electric wires were strung. That was when I felt most invested in that part of the story, like when she discusses how she rationalized the choice of piping, or what they had to do to make the waterlogged wood work. The enterprise began in 2009, when YouTube was in its infancy and there were no smart phones, which makes it all the more impressive.

It’s impossible to not be awed by her tenacity, but I do wonder about the children, who Cara frankly admits do not get to experience a true childhood during that time frame as they slog through mud, slinging studs and sand around. There are benefits in their pursuit, as they all gain valuable skills and confidence and come together as a family. For those who might be inspired to follow her pursuit, she might have included a timeline or list of resources. I’m a huge fan of triumphant underdog stories, and while it does leave me wondering what I could accomplish if I committed to a goal like Cara and her family, I certainly don’t have the confidence (or is it naivety?) to attempt it by myself.

Jazz Day

Jazz Day.jpgTitle: Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph
Author: Roxane Orgill
Illustrator: Francis Vallejo
ISBN: 9780763669546
Pages: 55 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2016.

In 1958, Art Kane had a crazy idea. Gather as many jazz musicians as possible in one place for a big black-and-white photograph, like a kind of graduation picture. (ix)

A collection of poems inspired by a famous photo of jazz musicians from almost 60 years ago, I’m unsure how much appeal or interest children will have in picking up this publication. Jazz is not something that is played regularly on the modern radio, and has been relegated to a stereotypical niche markets of listeners, such as NPR donors or college students who swing dance. Learning the stories behind the people featured in the photo are interesting, but not the primary goal of the book, which means you can’t even promote it as a collective biography, even though there are short biographies of a select few participants in the back. It’s good that the original photo was included along with a chart for identification purposes, but including the chart in the back matter might mean some readers will miss it entirely. The illustrations, primarily in sepia tones, seem more successful when focusing on a single person or small group than when trying to squeeze the entire group onto a page. There is little action to propel the story since it’s basically the story of how a photo was taken, and the poems cover vignettes of either the participants’ previous experiences or embellished accounts of the day. While I can recognize and pay homage to the historical significance of the photo, it’s going to be a hard hand sell for anyone who isn’t already interested in the topic.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Fancy Party Gowns

Fancy Party Gowns.jpgTitle: Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe
Author: Deborah Blumenthal
Illustrator: Laura Freeman
ISBN: 9781499802399
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: little bee books, a division of Bonnier Publishing, c2017.

Ann thought about what she could do, not what she couldn’t change.
So she sat down and sewed the dresses herself. Then she stood up and ran the business.

Ann Cole Lowe was the designer of Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress when she married future president John F. Kennedy. Primarily covering her role in that momentous event and her career but skimming over her personal life, some of her other designs can be seen in the end papers and cover of the book. Many appear timeless and could grace the award show invitees today. The focus remains squarely on Ann, with most of the illustrations only featuring her face. Although I don’t know what materials were used to make the illustrations, they have a layered quality that pulls readers into the drawing and makes it seem as if you’re standing next to her, watching her struggle and succeed. Pay attention to the scene where she is watching a television in a store front window, and you’ll see her impressively rendered reflection! The repeating refrain quoted above is inspiration for anyone struggling, and also showcases that while her lack of business sense had her floundering financially, Lowe never lost her talent, spirit, and drive to succeed. A forgotten piece of history has been brought to new life.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.


Breakthrough.jpgTitle: Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever
Author: Jim Murphy
ISBN: 9780547821832
Pages: 130 pages
Publisher/Date: Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2015.

It wasn’t only that the operation was very complex and risky. The surgery he was about to perform on Eileen’s struggling heart had never been done on a human before, let alone one so tiny or frail. This was why the balcony-type observation stand along the west side of room 706 was packed with curious Johns Hopkins staff and why a movie camera had been set up pointing at the operating table. If the operation worked — if the patient survived — history would be made.
Moreover, Blalock had never performed this procedure, not even on an experimental animal. In fact, the only person to have done it successfully start to finish, wasn’t an official member of the surgical team. According to hospital rules, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the room. But he was there now, at Blalock’s request, standing just behind the surgeon on a wooden step stool. His name was Vivien Thomas, and most people at the hospital thought he was a janitor. (xiii)

On Wednesday, November 29, 1944, history was made. The first ever operation on a child to increase blood flow to the heart was scheduled to take place. Not only was it a moment in medical history, but it was also a moment in women’s rights and African-American rights. For over a year Dr. Alfred Blalock, chief surgeon and researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and his African-American research assistant Vivien Thomas had been studying the research of hearing-impaired pediatric physician Dr. Helen Taussig. At Taussig’s request, they had been searching for a means to solve this reoccurring problem of abnormal development of the heart, which had cost her the lives of over two hundred patients. When they finally develop what they think is a solution, they find themselves in a race against time with undeveloped technology and unpracticed procedures to save the life of a young child.

An interesting introduction to a rarely considered medical event, this narrative nonfiction provides background contextual information, primary source photographs, and simplified descriptions of scientific concepts. Mentioned in the short description above, this book could be used to spread knowledge about medical, women’s, or African-American history. Vivien Thomas is unable to attend medical school due to the economic collapse of the 1930s, and ends up being essentially educated on-the-job after he is hired by Blalock, ten years his senior. With his boss and upon first arriving at Johns Hopkins, Thomas is forced to confront racist tendencies that had been culturally ingrained for decades. Dr. Helen Taussig also had to confront others’ prejudices against her, including not being allowed to take more than one or two classes at a time and not being allowed to study in the same room as her classmates for fear she would “contaminate” the other students. Her gradual hearing loss also proved unique problems that she solved in order to continue the professional career track she had fought so hard to achieve. Other social issues at the time that are still prevalent today, including animal testing, sterilization methods, and insider industry information, are touched upon to provide context.

It’s the personal vignettes behind the discovery that create the compelling narrative. The inclusion of period photographs featuring the people and places involved all bring the incredible story to life. The medical concepts are broken down into the barest, most simplistic terms. While that makes it easy to understand for readers, additional visuals to aid in comprehending the surgery and the anatomy involved would have been appreciated. The sequence of development of the heart on page 28 and the drawing of the chest cavity inside a child on page 49 was extremely helpful in envisioning it, although the captain makes it sound like the drawing was done by Thomas. Even enlarging the newspaper clipping found on page 77 would have sufficed, to make it easier to read the information contained and see the drawing provided, although it is a remarkably clear and readable scan.

For a fuller picture of the historic event, it’s implications, and aftermath, readers should read the detailed source notes, which contain information that regrettably did not make it into the primary text. It’s my impression that most people neglect to read the included back matter in informational texts. For instance, while the text vaguely mentions that Thomas was later recognized, including a formal portrait, an honorary doctorate, and made head of the laboratory, the significance of his becoming an “instructor of surgery at the school, an extraordinarily rare appointment for someone who was neither a surgeon nor a doctor” is only mentioned in the source notes. Overall, the book does a solid job recognizing the accomplishments of scientists that no one has heard of or probably even considered investigating.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.jpgTitle: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Young Readers Edition)
Author: William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
ISBN: 9780803740808
Pages: 293 pages
Publisher/Date: Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of the Penguin Group LLC, c2015

Many of you have probably been saying, “But doesn’t everyone have electricity?” It’s true that most people in Europe and America are lucky to have lights whenever they want them, plus things like air-conditioning and microwave ovens. But in Africa, we’re not so lucky. In fact, only about eight percent of Malawians have electricity in their homes, and most of them live in the city.
Not having electricity meant that I couldn’t do anything at night. I couldn’t read or finish my radio repairs. I couldn’t do my homework or study for school. No watching television. It also meant that when I walked outside to the toilet, I couldn’t see the big spiders or roaches that liked to play in the latrine at night. I only felt them crunch under my bare feet.
Whenever the sun went down, most people stopped what they were doing, brushed their teeth, and went straight to bed. Not at ten p.m., of even nine o’clock–but seven in the evening! Who goes to bed at seven in the evening? Well, most of Africa. (54)

William Kamkwamba was born into a family of six sisters, located in a tiny village in the heart of the African country of Malawi.He spent his time studying for school, helping his family maintain their farm, and fixing radios in his spare time. When he was 13, tragedy struck as a drought swept the country, and with it extreme shortages of food and starvation. With no money for school and no crops to tend at the farm, William started spending time at the library. It was there he discovered the power of windmills, and the idea that a windmill could pump water from the well, fertilize their crops, and provide them with free electricity. He spent the next year teaching himself and collecting and buying scrap metal, including a rusty bicycle, a tractor fan, and a shock absorber. But would a teenager who barely passed middle school be able to design and assemble these pieces and parts together and make something?

This is an uplifting true story about the power of engineering, ingenuity, curiosity, and perseverance. William didn’t know about electricity when he first started taking apart and putting back together radios, but he wasn’t afraid to learn. After dropping out of school due to lack of funds, William tries valiantly to stay on top of his studies so he can rejoin the class next year. He copies his friend’s notes and visits the library often, which he describes in great detail. I can picture the dusty shelves stuffed haphazardly with books that libraries here in America probably discarded because they were out of date or didn’t have colored pictures, but their information is still relevant enough to get William the information he needs.

Anything he can’t find he’s willing to work to acquire. He pleads with this father to have the broken family bicycle. In order to pay for the services of a welder, he stacks firewood for hours to get enough money. When he needed washers, he collected bottle caps, pounded them flat, and hammered a hole into the center. It’s inspiring to think that this young man who so many would see as disadvantaged could do something so extraordinary that it would capture the public’s attention.While the book includes color photographs of his family and invention, it would have been nice and more enlightening if the book had included diagrams of his innovation. The descriptions are very detailed and paired with a picture you get an idea, but for children wanting to duplicate his efforts they may need to mimic his methods and do some more research.

William’s family is disadvantaged, and he recognizes it, but it doesn’t impact his happiness. He doesn’t complain about using the latrine or lacking running water or electricity, only bringing up these details to better explain his situation, not try to excuse it. Overall he has a relatively happy life, with friends and games and free time to pursue his passion, even if that happens to be electrical engineering. In American he’d probably be playing with Lego Mindstorms instead of old radios. It’s important for readers, especially here in the United States, to understand his circumstances and the uniqueness of his accomplishment, and that he had to improvise with what he had instead of purchasing something he needed. The scenes of famine are heart-wrenching, but not sensationalized, and I think every reader will grow teary-eyed at the matter-of-fact telling of the situation with his dog and the medical maladies that fall on William and his friends. It’s one thing to say that African nations are poor or undeveloped or suffering from a famine, but it’s quite different to read about it through the eyes of a child who experienced it and brings those feelings to life.

Rather than stay in American after college, it’s also unique to see that William wants to return to his country and work on projects for Africa, in Africa, and run by Africans. He doesn’t disparage his country or community, and wants to help it thrive by building on what is there, instead of changing it culturally or Americanizing it. Ending this blog post in the same way Kamkwamba ends his autobiography, hopefully his story will inspire others.

Often people with the best ideas face the greatest challenges–their country at war; a lack of money or education or the support of those around them. But like me, they choose to stay focused because that dream–as far away as it seems–is the truest and most hopeful thing they have. Think of your dreams and ideas as tiny miracle machines inside you that no one can touch. The more faith you put into them, the bigger they get, until one day they’ll rise up and take you with them. (290)

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

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